Given the ongoing debates surrounding the under representation of strong female characters on the big screens, their presence in toy merchandise proves to be as problematic as in films and visual media. Recently, the director and co-writer of Iron Man 3, Shane Black, announced that his team received a memo from Marvel’s production company saying that their initial plan to represent a female villain version of Aldrich Killian was canceled.
According to Black, the original script was meant to have a male villain who was supposed to reveal her female gender at the end of the movie, leaving the audience in an awe realizing that the whole time a woman was running the show. While the original script could have presented a fresh idea, the production company predicted that their toy merchandise would take a hit given the fact that the No. 1 target of superhero toys are young boys, not young girls. Black explained in an interview with Uproxx, “So, we had to change the entire script because of toy-making. They just said no way!”
Last year, Natasha Romanoff (AKA the Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson appeared in only three of the official 60 Avengers toys available in the markets. Earlier this year, a Star Wars Monopoly game was released without the figurine of Rey, the female lead character in the series.
As if this alone is not disappointing enough, Black further mentioned the roles of female characters was also reduced throughout the production period. Ellen Brandt, Marvel’s significant warrior and agent of A.I.M (played by Stéphanie Szostak) and scientist Maya Hansen (played by Rebecca Hall) are two instances of this matter. “The plot went this way and that way. Stéphanie Szostak’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it. Rebecca Hall’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it,” Black told to the Uproxx.
Agents of SHIELD’s star Chloe Bennet tackled this topic during a Q&A session last month. Discussing why the Avengers such as Natasha Romanoff are not part of the show’s major conflict with Hive’s army, Bennet responds: “I don’t know. People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!”
Personally, I think the reasoning behind why Avengers like Romanoff are not part of the show’s major conflict is because the usual focus of the Avengers’ movies is on strong male leads that always relegates women to the sidelines. Marvel Comics’ female leaders are pushed to the margins by more prominent male actors. Ever since X-Men (2000) alongside Blade (1998) started a reemergence for superhero film genre with their worldwide success, Marvel chose to rely on the recurring appearance of male heroes for higher gross, ignoring the decades-long importance of female superheroes appearing in initial comics (see the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston).
In a leaked email conversation between the CEO of Sony and Isaac Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Perlmutter listed three female superhero films that he considered box office disasters: Elektra (2005), Catwoman (2004), and Supergirl (1984). While it is true that each of these films failed to dazzle the audience and never boosted the bottom line for movie studios financially, the point Perlmutter appears to be missing is that was roughly a decade ago before the beginning of the current superhero boom.
What about the female-led adaptations of The Hunger Games and Divergent series? Didn’t they rocket to the top of the box office? Doesn’t this prove to the Hollywood industry that movies about women are indeed profitable if the industry gets over its fear of female power? What is their excuse for making the female roles smaller? Isn’t anyone considering the billions of dollars these films have generated?
Marvel’s current president Kevin Feige made an excellent point claiming that, “It’s unfair to say, ‘People don’t want to see movies with female heroes,’ then list five movies that were not very good, therefore, people didn’t go to the movies because they weren’t good movies, versus [because] they were female leads. Yes, and they don’t mention Hunger Games, Frozen, Divergent. You can go back to Kill Bill or Aliens. These are all female-led movies. It can certainly be done.”
Considering Hollywood’s ongoing fascination with supermen, from blockbuster franchises to toys, no one would deny the fact this is impacting our everyday lives. Media studies reveal the influence of visual representations upon our internalized ideologies. “When women don’t see ourselves represented in an important role, for instance as a superhero, we begin to question our value in society,” says psychologist and comic book expert Andrea Letamendi in a talk at San Diego Comic-Con. “It’s surprising that we’re still considering that, but it’s very true. The clinical term for it is symbolic annihilation, and it has a damaging effect, especially on younger audiences.”
More and more determined women are acting upon the importance for the development of gender representation. The significance of positive female representation is being acknowledged more and more every day. In his book The Supergirls, author Mike Madrid explains heroines are being granted more and more agency as the decades wear on. Female heroes are indeed becoming “something more than window dressing, they became heroes in their own right, independent of male superiors.”
While Madrid acknowledges that the industry “is not truly equal yet”, the depictions of women over time offer hope that a positive trajectory will continue. The introduction of Zoe Saldana‘s alien assassin Gamora in The Guardians of the Galaxy, the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Winged Wasp in Ant-Man, and Lady Sif in Thor, are all proofs that women are indeed paving their way on big screens. The challenge is to get their own movies and to shine light on their already significant roles.
Despite the slow-moving media behemoth, positive changes are being seen. Adaptations with a female villain lead might be too risky for Marvel’s production company to undertake yet. Modern comics may not portray women as women truly are yet, but some are beginning to offer more diversity in ethnicity, sexuality, and personality type. It is a huge leap forward from typical representations of women from the Classic Hollywood era. Also, let’s not forget that Marvel Comics recently introduced a young Muslim girl as a new superhero, which is another sign that mainstream comics are moving forward.
What the industry needs is more women, more women in prominent positions, and more women just taking up significant tasks in general and being seen as important. The only way to try to impact what’s on screen is to support the diverse and female filmmakers behind the camera, and that’s not going to happen overnight.